John Redmond: Ireland's forgotten national leader 100 years on from his death

He came close to achieving Home Rule, reshaped the formerly divided Irish Parliamentary Party into a formidable political force and opposed Partition, yet John Redmond was for many years largely excised from the narrative of Irish history. Ahead of the centenary of his death next week, historian Dermot Meleady assesses Redmond's legacy

John Redmond with his second wife Amy and daughter Johanna Picture: Courtesy Redmond family private collection
Dermot Meleady

AS A schoolboy studying history in Dublin some decades ago, I was intrigued by the way in which teachers and textbooks treated the 25-year period between the death of Charles Stewart Parnell and the 1916 Rising.

In the onrushing narrative of Ireland’s struggle for freedom, the period was a wasteland, peopled only by heroic Gaelic League activists who biked around the country propagating the Irish language and sowing the seeds of rebellion, while vaguely corrupt and anglicised politicians waxed fat at Westminster under the false banner of Home Rule. There had to be more to it than that, I thought.

Much later, I looked for an account of the life of John Redmond, the Irish nationalist leader during those ‘wasteland’ years. The most recent full-length biography dated from 1932. It looked as though, if I wanted a biography of Redmond, I would have to write it myself.

Raised in a Catholic minor gentry family in the south east of Co Wexford, Redmond inherited constitutional nationalism from his father, Ireland’s first Home Rule MP and co-founder of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The Party would campaign at Westminster for an Irish parliament with a responsible executive exerting full control of domestic affairs.

Redmond was elected the Party’s MP for the New Ross borough in 1881 at the age of 24, at a time when land agitation was at semi-revolutionary pitch in parts of Ireland. Under the leadership of Parnell, the party campaigned simultaneously for Irish self-government and against coercion legislation, while advising tenant farmers on taking advantage of Prime Minister Gladstone’s reforming Land Bill.

Though not a member of Parnell’s inner circle, Redmond was an effective parliamentary performer and orator, making a particular impact with a fine speech on the first Home Rule Bill in 1886.

When the O’Shea divorce scandal broke in late 1890, compromising Parnell’s leadership, Redmond became the chief spokesman of the minority of MPs who stood by the leader. After Parnell’s death, the split in the party lasted nine years, with Redmond leading the small ‘Parnellite’ faction against dominant anti-Parnellite sentiment. United nationalist action was frustrated when the second Home Rule Bill passed the Commons but was vetoed by the House of Lords.

On the party’s reunification in 1900, Redmond was elected leader. A natural conciliator, he bound up the party’s wounds and revived nationalist morale. With Home Rule off the political agenda for another decade, his party was responsible for solid legislative reforms that changed the face of Ireland.

John Redmond with his second wife Amy and son William Archer Redmond

These include the Land Purchase Acts of 1903 and 1909 that transferred ownership of agricultural land from landlords to tenants, the Labourers Acts of 1906 and 1911 that provided for the building of almost 40,000 cottages for agricultural labourers and the 1908 Act founding the National University of Ireland, along with many smaller measures.

The general elections of 1910 gave Redmond’s party a commanding position in British politics, compelling the Liberals to activate their long-dormant Home Rule commitment. The result was the third Home Rule Bill of 1912.

Under new rules, this must pass three consecutive sessions in the Commons to become law. It was now that Redmond came up against the force that would prove his nemesis.

He had enjoyed good relations with southern unionists and opposed clericalism in political life (his second wife was an English Protestant). However, he failed to comprehend the popular phenomenon that was Ulster unionism and its determination to resist Dublin rule.

The Bill having passed a second time in 1913, the unionist leaders Sir Edward Carson and Andrew Bonar Law realised it was unstoppable and sought an agreed settlement based on the exclusion of unionist Ulster from Home Rule. Redmond denounced this as the ‘mutilation’ of the Irish nation, but by early 1914 had been forced to acquiesce in Prime Minister Asquith’s offer of a temporary exclusion scheme based on individual county plebiscites and a six-year time limit.

Carson’s rejection of this and his demand for the ‘clean cut’ – the permanent exclusion of a six-county bloc – created a deadlock in Parliament. The exponential growth of rival armed unionist and nationalist volunteer forces brought the stand-off on to the streets. By July 1914, Ireland seemed on the brink of a civil war.

There is evidence that Redmond was about to support dropping the time limit on Ulster’s exclusion. However, the outbreak of the Great War forestalled further discussion (and the civil war). The Home Rule Act was signed into law in September 1914, with its operation suspended for the duration of the war and with the Ulster issue unresolved. Redmond had achieved what his predecessors had failed to do, but his very success brought him up against forces they had not had to confront.

Redmond then made his famous recruiting call on Irishmen to enlist for the front. Catholic and Protestant Ulstermen came forward in equal numbers, comprising over half of all Irish recruits. Redmond voiced an idealistic hope that the fight against a common foe would solve the Ulster issue by forging a common identity between nationalist and unionist Irishmen.

Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond with Joe Devlin, Belfast MP and director of The Irish News, review National Volunteers in Dublin's Phoenix Park in 1915 Picture: National Library of Ireland

The rebellion of Easter 1916 changed much in Ireland. After its suppression, the government attempted to bring the Home Rule Act into operation, subject to the provisional exclusion of a six county bloc. Redmond, with the energetic support of his Belfast lieutenant Joe Devlin MP, was able to sell the deal to Ulster nationalists, but when the government replaced ‘provisional’ with ‘permanent’ he was forced to withdraw.

He was seen to have conceded partition, now a toxic term among nationalists, but with nothing to show for it. His followers abandoned the Irish Party for a resurgent Sinn Fein. Broken-hearted and demoralised by bouts of illness and bereavements (his brother Major Willie Redmond MP was killed at the front in June 1917) he died in London on March 6 1918.

In death, it was his Ulster supporters who proved most loyal. In the landslide Sinn Fein victory of December 1918, Redmond’s party survived in only six constituencies. One was his Waterford city base. The other five were in Ulster.

:: Dermot Meleady is the editor of John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918, published by Merrion Press, to be launched in Dublin on March 15 2018. He is also author of the two-volume biography Redmond: the Parnellite (Cork University Press, 2008) and John Redmond: The National Leader (Merrion Press, 2014).

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